Jason Collins Is Standing On The Shoulders Of 8 Out Pro Team Sports Athletes

Jason Collins made history when he became the first openly gay NBA player after he was checked into the game Sunday between the L.A. Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets. He gets all the credit in the world for his historic act of courage. Yet it would have been a lot harder without the groundwork laid by these eight heroes, all of whom came out shortly after retirement inspired the national conversation.

And with more and more high school and college athletes coming out, most notably NFL hopeful Michael Sam, space for top echelon athletes is opening up everywhere. Let’s hope Collins is just the first of many to pay homage to these pioneers, young and old alike.

Scroll down to see eight gay professional team sports athletes who came out after retiring, blazing the way for players like Collins and Sam to live more openly.

David Kopay

Former NFL running back David Kopay became one of the first professional athletes to come out in 1975, three years after he retired. In 1977, The David Kopay Story, a biography written with Perry Deane Young, made the bestseller list. Earlier this month, Kopay penned an open letter to NFL hopeful Michael Sam published on OutSports.

Roy Simmons

The former NY Giants lineman became the second NFL player to come out after he retired in 1992. He was also the first NFL player to come out as HIV positive. In 2006, Simmons told the NY Daily News in 2006 that “in the NFL, there is nothing worse than being gay. You can beat your wife, but you better not be gay.” Simmons passed away earlier this week.

Billy Bean

Outfielder Billy Bean retired from Major League baseball in 1995, after a successful eight year career. He came out four years later in 1999. The story made the front page of the New York Times and the cover of The Advocate. In 2003, Bean’s memoir Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseballwritten with Queerty’s editorial director, Chris Bull, became a national bestseller.

Jerry Smith

Jerry Smith played tight end for the Washington Redskins from 1965 to 1977. Though he never publicly came out during his lifetime, his sexuality was confirmed by former teammate, David Kopay, after Smith’s death from AIDS in 1986. Earlier this year, ESPN released a documentary about Smith and his struggles with the closet, as well as his brief romance with Kopay.

Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke played for the L.A. Dodgers and the Oakland A’s from 1976 through 1979. He was the first MLB player to come out to his teammates during his career, despite the homophobic taunting of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. In 1995, he told the New York Times, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”

Burke died of AIDS on May 30, 1995.

Dave Pallone

Dave Pallone was a MLB umpire for 10 years. In 1988, he was forced to resign after getting into a physical confrontation with Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose on the field. Later that year, Pallone was outed by the New York Post. In 1990, he published a bestselling memoir, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseballabout his experiences as a gay man in MLB. In 2013, he was  one of the first inductees to the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

Esera Tuaolo

Hawaiian native Esera Tuaolo played as a defensive tackle in the NFL for nine years before retiring in 1999. In 2002, he came out on HBO’s Real Sports, making him the third former NFLer to come out publicly. Afterwards, he shared his story on shows including Oprah and The Tyra Banks Show, before releasing a memoir in 2006.

John Amaechi

The 6’10 retired NBA player came out in 2007 in Man in the Middle, (also written with Queerty’s Chris Bull) becoming the first former NBA player to do so and earning him the title of “one of the world’s most high-profile gay athletes” by the BBC. Today Amaechi works as both an educator and broadcaster in Europe and the United States.

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  • dougmc92

    and Martina trumps them all- she played doubles, World Team Tennis and Fed Cup- those are team sports :)


    Queerty, I wish you’d also shown images of these guys at the height of their sporting prowess. Kopay was hot as fuck!

    Here’s a few more:

    Ray McDonald NFL. People always forget him :(

    Ed Gallagher (NCAA Division I) earns a mention for his gay rights and disability rights advocacy — having been left paraplegic after a suicide attempt over his sexuality.

    And let’s not forget that NFL offensive tackler of teriyaki terrorism…surly samurai of soy sauce sacrilege,,,Kung fu condiment condemner..that is Kwame Harris!

    And of course Wade Davis NFL

    While a mixed bag in terms of “outness” or icon-worthiness, all such guys represent a hammer blow against the constrictive stereotype of homosexuals ipso facto as the “sissy” unable to play with the tough boys.

  • dutchman67

    You forgot Martina, the most “Out and Proud” athlete ever. She took crap from nobody, never hid, and has spent her adult life as an advocate for Equality.

  • Niall

    @dutchman67: Yep and she has my respect so much.
    Not diminishing anyone coming out, but in sports, there’s quite a difference from being gay and being or used to be a pro-athlete and being gay and being an OUT and CURRENTLY ACTIVE pro-athlete. I think the latter category are the braver souls. It’s a lot easier coming out after you’ve retired than having the balls to be out and still be actively playing the sport.

  • Respect4all

    I recognize that these players were active at a time when the country and the world were less accepting of gay people, particularly gay athletes. But there is nothing ‘heroic’ about hiding in the closet until you’ve retired and then coming out so you can write a book and make money. “Heroism” requires taking a risk to help others. Their post-retirement activities may have helped others, but there was no risk involved.

  • bmwblonde

    Fascinating story. You’d almost think that some 5-10% of people in EVERY profession were gay . . . Nah! I look forward to a time when none of this is EVER “news” again; we ARE on the way there.

    Meanwhile I have a question about the AGE of various contributors to these comments in QUEERTY. I’m 66; have lived through a stunning series of LGBT changes in my lifetime. During the ‘Nam era I was a 4-year enlisted man (didn’t get ask, didn’t tell). Always (quietly) out and averagely “masculine” (excuse me but being out AT ALL was very brave in the 1970’s, and I paid for it). For, as a talented, educated (and therefore “threatening”)professional, faced several rather amazing experiences of opportunities flagrantly denied me (“We can’t have a V.P. like YOU – too VISIBLE”). So I caution younger gay men now about being judgmental about those athletes who didn’t come out during their careers in the 80’s or 90’s. Basically about that, I can only say: “If you weren’t there to experience what it was like, SHADDUP.” And, please: be grateful you are alive (and probably YOUNG) now — when the momentum is FINALLY on our side. Just saying: It’s always a cheap shot to judge others when you are clueless about what their lives were like.

  • freerights1127

    I fully support homosexuals marrying lesbians. I think that is a good compromise. I mean homosexuals and lesbians both have their ‘same sex attraction’ gene as something they have in common.

  • Ghstboi3

    @bmwblonde:Thank you for saying this…

  • ShowMeGuy

    @Respect4all: Amen.

  • Andrew Yang

    @bmwblonde: Well said, and thank you!

  • Angelico

    Big thank you to the posters that reminded me of Martina. She’s living proof that greatness is more than what you accomplish on the court but also who you are off of it.


    Yes, Martina coming out was brave and important moment. But there’s a reason why it was her and not her male equivalent — it was and remains infinitely more difficult for a man to come out in a male sports culture. In our misogynistic culture lesbians can get an unspoken albeit grudging respect from men for their seemingly adopting the more assertive dominant masculine virtues; while straight woman can choose to view them as feminist champions transcending constrictions imposed by the patriarchy. Male homosexuality OTOH is simply seen as demeaning and bitch-like by society in general. It’s much more of an uphill struggle. So there’s no real comparison.

  • alterego1980

    @Respect4all: I understand that heroic is maybe not the right word. But there something valuable that came from their coming out. It showed, among other things that gets could play and be good at sports. It showed the homophobic people in the locker room that they had indeed known a gay person and showered next to a gay person and it was never an issue. And was was very brave and commendable that they came out when the opposite choice was to stay in the closet. Speaking of, the one person I can’t reconcile with is Jerry Smith. He didn’t come out and was in denial to the public even during his last breath from aids. That’s not something to celebrate

  • multitasker

    @Respect4all: I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you about the risk these athletes faced in the past. Retired athletes often depend on their legacy in order to continue to make a living. The majority of athletes do not make the crazy bucks that set them up for life, so they need to be able to count on being in demand for speaking engagements and endorsements as well various other sports-related positions from commentating to coaching. Being gay is still as controversial as grave crimes in some circles. Coming out even after retirement had to be handled delicately and gracefully because they would likely be locked out of typical post-retirement options—blacklisted, essentially. I’d like to say that being gay and out thirty years ago compared to today is like night and day, but I think we’re still only at dawn, to keep with the metaphor. Even today, coming out early in one’s career can be highly risky.

    The social climate has indeed been changing; but we still have a long way to go to reach that place and time in which sexual orientation and gender identity “mean nothing” except to that tiny minority that will find something wrong in every difference under the sun.

  • Archangelo

    @PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID: You make a good point and I agree with many of them you made in your post. However one has to be careful not to view the 20th century with 21st century eyes. Martina became a beacon of light for feminists and gained the respect she deserved for her bravery and courage in the latter part of the 20th and earlier parts of the 21st century. When Martina came out in the late 70’s/early 80’s, the cultural climate was a much more hostile environment for LGBT Americans for both male and female alike making her courage and heroism all the more inspiring. Throughout her career, Martina was cruelly and unfairly criticized for not being “woman” enough and was ostracized by many of her own peers. Michael Sam, Jason Collins and all of the other brave athletes who dare to tell their truth under adverse conditions owe a debt of gratitude to heroes such as Martina who came out when conditions were much more adverse, for both male and female, than they are today.

  • LadyL

    Much respect and gratitude to Martina and all the athletes, whether active or post-career, for their bravery and integrity.
    While I fully sympathize with the arguments posted here that it is more truly heroic to come out before retirement rather than after, I also have to give props to bmwblonde and multitasker for their reality-check insights.

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